The mission of transformation

Feb 2004    
Prof Sanneh delivering his keynote address. -- TTC picture.

Conference of younger Asian church leaders sets agenda for mission in 21st century

A CONFERENCE to bring together younger Asian church leaders to help them focus on Holistic Mission, thereby setting the agenda for Christian mission in the 21st century, was held here for the first time.

About 200 participants from 23 mainly Asian countries, with a number from Africa, gathered at Trinity Theological College (TTC) for the Asian Mission Conference from Dec 6 to 10, 2003. It was jointly organised and sponsored by “Partnership in Mission – Asia” (PIM-Asia) and the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (CSCA) of TTC.

Following a keynote address by Prof Lamin Sanneh, Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale University, there were 13 other papers focusing on the Theology and Practice of Holistic Mission. These were delivered by distinguished Christian scholars and Church leaders from eight Asian countries.

The participants wrestled with the meaning and implications of holistic ministry in the Asian context, and thereby provided the potential to reshape Asian missiology for the next generation. As well, it may help lay a sound foundation for the renewal, growth and mission of the Asian church.

In his address, “Christian Mission and Transforming the World”, Prof Sanneh reminded participants that the church was born in mission and lives by it. As transformed souls, the disciples defined their responsibility from Jesus’ message to preach and receive converts into the church, by having them “baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16).

He indicated some of the setbacks to the ideal of Christian mission – either because Christianity was transformed into territorial power, or became culturally captive, or because other religious movements tried to check its triumphant march.

The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation, however, pushed mission in an entirely new direction. The rise of a new mercantile class derived from sea power sent them looking for wealth and profit, “to serve God and His majesty …” but most emphatically “to grow rich, as all men desire to do”. The rise of a new wealthy urban middle-class put in place a new missionary movement, characterised by a rising sense of risk-taking and personal responsibility, a shift from colonial to missionary Christianity.

Then followed a phase when fear of eternal damnation led many to make an urgent decision to save their souls. This entailed paying attention to the complex physical, political and material conditions of life, making superhuman demands on human instruments.

Yet another expression of missionary movement was expansion, first associated with Columbus and the exploitation of the non-Western world, followed by a similar evangelical awakening and expansion in the 18th century that resulted in the mass conversion of blacks in America and a new social advancement applied to practical Christianity. Christian leaders spoke confidently of conquest, of struggle, and of marching forward in the name of mission.

With the rise of 19th century European empires, the debate about the relevance of mission in the modern world began, questioning its motives. The 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference (WMC) that emphasised church unity found more than passing interest among leaders of the younger African and Asian churches who felt that the word “mission” had become associated with European domination and financial control. At the same time, Christianity faced emerging nationalism as well as Islam.

Christianity ‘has become a world religion’

Among missionaries, there was a crisis of confidence about the value of the Gospel in the light of the bloodshed of the Great War (World War I). If evangelised Christian countries of Europe could make war on each other, what use was there to evangelise non-Western countries?

The second WMC held in Jerusalem in 1928 continued with a revisionist understanding of the mission of the Church, and it was argued that its exclusive claims be set aside to commit itself to economic and social betterment and the new international order. The Church was to surrender its claim to authoritative truth.
The debate that followed was proof of the vitality and movement in thought and life in the church.

According to William Hocking and his peers, the world context has changed fundamentally. Between East and West, between Western science and Eastern philosophy, the gulf has narrowed considerably. It is therefore necessary to separate Christianity from Western culture and “to present it in its universal capacity”. The Christian mission is to make common cause with others rather than plan their demise.

Against the secular Christian view, Hendrik Kraemer, a Dutch missionary in Java, accepted the premise that the world is becoming one but resisted the weakening of the apostolic mandate for mission, tracing it to a compromising secularism that fed on a relativist ideology thereby opening the way for ideologies such as communism, Fascism and national socialism.

According to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin of South India, in a pluralist, multicultural society, the challenge is to affirm the validity of the other great religions of the world as a necessary part of the struggle of their people to emerge from the spiritual and cultural humiliation of colonialism. But, religious pluralism cannot exclude claims of absolute uniqueness, lest we become totally imprisoned in subjective relativism. Truth claims need not be in conflict with certain desirable goals and may furnish the principles by which intolerance, misunderstanding and narrow loyalties are judged and redeemed.

Prof Sanneh concluded his paper by observing that although we may still speak of world transformation, there is a new and different context – people have risen to new levels of critical historical consciousness and cultural sensitivity. Christianity has become a world religion, but has itself been transformed into forms and habits without the remotest resemblance to those of the originating European cultures.

World Christianity, freed of the West’s intellectual inhibitions, has become the religion of the excluded, the oppressed and the marginalised – a faith of the oppressed and dispossessed, victims of Western colonial supremacy.

Other papers presented at the conference included Bishop Dr John Chew’s on “Developing Missionary Partnerships”; Dr R. Theodore Srinivasgam’s “Cross Cultural Mission and the Unreached Peoples”; Dr Hong Young-Gi’s “The Theory and Practice of Church Growth”; and Dr Paulson Pulikottil’s “Signs, Wonders and Spiritual Warfare and Holistic Mission in Asia”.

Earnest Lau is the Associate Editor of Methodist Message.

Conference delegates at the Opening Service at the TTC Chapel. -- TTC picture.


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